Do we need account people ?

The News Corp debacle proved a showcase for that very human trait, which is to seek to pin blame on anyone within reach who might conceivably be responsible for the mess you’re in.

And this search for a scapegoat leads me inexorably to the role of the account person in advertising.

The game of blaming the account person has proved very enduring, because normally account people are much smarter than creatives and therefore able to slide out of the multiple accusations levelled at them.

In many agencies you can enjoy watching an almost eternal game in which creatives attempt to pin a donkey’s tail onto account people skittering around with the agility of mountain goats.

Although I often wonder why anyone would go through 5 years of higher education, just to get abuse heaped on them as they pay the taxi bill.

I was doing some creativity workshops in Barcelona the other day, and I asked the students whether they were on the creative side of the industry or the non-creative.

And I started thinking about that simplistic division we create – which implies that account people can’t contribute to the creative process.

Because that in itself is an enormous waste of highly intelligent talent.

But it brings up a thornier question  – which is, what role should account people play ?

In the old days, account people acted as middle-men – presenting work etc. And before we scoff too loudly at that structure, it’s worth remembering that under that regime,  36% of people said the ads were better than the programmes (as opposed to about 4.3% now), and we had the so-called Golden Era of creativity.

But it doesn’t seem tenable now, because clients demand to meet creatives.

(And I can see why. If you were doing work on your house, would you want to talk to the architect or someone who can only guess at what the architect has in mind ?)

But if clients are increasingly focussing on the creative talent, shouldn’t the industry be focussing more on promoting creative talent ? As I told the Barcelona workshops, that’s the one thing which clients can’t replicate in-house.

If only because most creative people want to work in funky offices in Soho or Shoreditch.

Or at the very least, within striking distance of a decent latte.

But if you look at the tops of agencies, they’re almost exclusively run by people from account handling backgrounds.

And I think that’s why the general standard of creativity, right across the industry, is so low.

We should be creating partnerships at the top, with equal creative representation.

Further down the tree, the problem is this. We’re still treating account people as go-betweens, a demeaning role at the best of times, and increasingly an unnecessary one, too.

What I’d like to see is account people merged with planners, and re-christened as business directors. Their role in the agency would be to take responsibility for the commercial side of things.

Because at heart, that is what advertising is – creativity meeting commerce.

It would be their job to make sure that the commercial pressures facing clients were properly understood and integrated into the creative solutions being put forward.

This might be the intention in some agencies, but at the minute it all seems rather messy and unfocussed.

And I suspect that, no matter what I say here,  it will carry on that way.

It may be that the future is all about small groups of generalists – 3 or 4 people sitting in a corner of Starbucks, who take on projects for clients and call in other skill sets on an ad hoc basis.

(Which I happen to think is a great model.)

But it’s also worth noting that the biggest problem facing the industry right now is the breakdown of trust between clients and agencies.

This is down to a whole host of factors – agencies failing to get to grips with digital issues quickly enough,  bigger issues of complacency, agencies giving away research and media skills, having unsustainable financial models, not caring enough about creativity, greed, etc etc etc.

But building that trust up again will need a total re-invention of  “account handling” skills.

We don’t need someone to pay the taxi and ask you how your weekend was.

We need commercial nous and a system that recognises a shared sense of responsibility.

Account directors could help immeasurably in that respect.

  • James Clark

    Steve you make an excellent point about something that is holding agencies back, however there is a crucial element required to turn around this problem.

    The business of agencies is where account people are the most vital, however you cannot just ‘designate’ account people as the commercial leaders of the agency. Account people need to be trained to develop business expertise from an early stage if they are to win the respect of their clients and make a positive impact on their own agencies.

    Admittedly many skills in leadership, sales and people-management are honed on the job, however the technical skills like accountancy, corporate finance and organisational behaviour are widely lacking and agencies are the poorer for it.

    Training staff is not cheap, however neither should it be seen as a luxury, it is an investment in the future of the business. It shouldn’t be assumed that staff will pick up skills along the way – this is just an abdication of responsibility on the part of agencies. Training is necessary, the results will be account people contributing greater expertise in better managed businesses, providing more effective services for the clients, and just maybe earning some respect from their creative colleagues.

  • Chris Arnold

    I think it is time to re evaluate the agency structure. Many of the new generation ad agencies (Anomaly, Droga 5, Creative Orchestra, etc) have. 
    It’s true that creativity is one of the strongest offerings agencies have to sell, yet many of the big agencies prefer to block clients from meeting them, which in a survey we carried out really annoys clients. Why do they stop clients meeting the talent? Sadly it’s all about making money. Meeting and working with the creatives would raise the dangerous question, “why am I paying so much for account handling?” “What do they do?” And even, “actually theses guys are really smart.”I believe there are three key things an agency needs to focus on and this should dictate the structure:Intelligence (insight, strategy) – Planning
    Innovation, imagination, ideas – Creative
    Logistics, project and client management  – this is the area that needs a rethink and a new title as it’s more than account management and more than just traffic.Sadly, as long as account management is screwing clients out of every penny by rewriting briefs. having lots of meetings, pushing paper around, agencies will think they are the ones that actually make the money, rather than the real talent.Just remember one thing, the creatives are usually the only ones in an agency who actually have a degree in what they do in an agency.And for those agencies that have got rid of the creatives all together (using freelance hacks to save money and to screw clients even more) they have discovered they have killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.

    • will atkinson

      All good stuff Chris – except the ‘hacks’ slur on freelancers. I and most freelancers I know do it because we want to, not because we’re hacks who can’t get jobs in some wage slave agency system. Steve’s point about the future model is 2/3 people in Starbucks doing stuff for clients. is already here. Just most of us prefer to do it below the parapet. Frankly you’ll find more hacks in agencies than you will in Starbucks. Why? Because you can hide in an agency. When your mortgage depends on your ability to freelance you’d better be good or else.

      • will atkinson

        Actually, anywhere but Starbucks…

    • James Clark

      Come on Chris, so many tired cliches! I think the point of Steve’s blog was to move the conversation past this pointless discussion.

  • Jane O’Keeffe

    I agree that project and client management needs frequent re-assessment to ensure what is being delivered is efficient and effective and amounts to more than simply advanced administration.  I also agree that agencies should respond positively to clients who want to see more of the people who are actually coming up with the ideas, but we should be mindful of the consequences of this. 

    The consequences I’m referring to are not that the irrelevance of account handling will suddenly be tragically exposed, but that if creatives spend more time in client meetings they will necessarily have less time to come up with ideas.  This could be solved by hiring more creatives (either permanent or freelance) but this can be harder than it sounds and more to the point, do we really want our best creative brains to spend more than 50% of their time commuting to client meetings in the home counties and beyond when, a lot of the time, an account handler can cover it without any material disadvantage to agency or client?

    If an agency is regularly left asking itself if its account handlers are adding anything other than cost, then they need to re-examine whether they have the right account handlers in their department.  A good one should be able to add something of value at all of the key stages of the process.

  • paul c-c


    You must have broad shoulders as everyone will want to blame you or make you a scapegoat.
    You cannot contribute to the creative process but you have to earn the respect from your creative colleagues. This is not a two way process by the way, creatives are gods.
    You need business training to earn the respect of your clients & contribute to the bottom line.
    You must avoid raising dangerous questions about your salary, self worth & what you actually do.
    You must have lots of meetings, be able to rewrite lots, push paper.
    You don’t need a degree (like the creative gods)
    You must be efficient & effective otherwise you will be tragically exposed for the charlatan you are
    You must spend 50% of your time, switched off, while travelling to meetings.
    You must not think. Other departments do that or will partner you to help you along the way
    Do not expect any respect for job you do.

    If you can demonstrate all of the above in your interview & CV you’ll be snapped up by those in the know. 

  • Rob Mortimer

    If work is rubbish it is everyone’s responsibility, so why shouldn’t creating it be everyone’s responsibility?

  • Chris Wilson

    I don’t there should be any such thing as ‘account handling’.

    There should be project managers, who, well, manage the projects. And account managers – and that is where the issue is as you rightly say Steve. They should be so close to the client and their business that they act very much like a planner. In my first agency we didn’t even have planners – we just had really good account people who did both ‘jobs’. They were brilliant marketers and also highly commercially aware. Every day they were the ones being completely indispensible to the client. 

    As always this comes back to the way we charge. If we continue to charge by the hour then we’re lost. If we charge based on value then that’s what clients want, and that’s what’ll be better for the entire industry in the long-term – your point about agency/client trust Steve.

    Clients come to an agency for the creative. They leave when account management becomes account handling…

  • Kevin Gordon

    Very interesting story.
    It’s like baking a cake.
    You can have all the right ingredients, 
    but if it doesn’t rise it’s a flop.
    It’s a question of balance:

    How many client-facing business people V How many creative & production staff.

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  • Adam Kennedy

    What a very out-dated discussion. Ho hum.

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  • Delfin Vassallo

    Really outdated discussion, I thought these trivialities were already surpassed in most agencies. Multitasking people is now the best asset, I started my career as copywriter, Creative Director… then jumped to client side and now I’m back in agency world as Account Director.

    It’s all about how you combine your skills to develop a unique creative AND commercial profile, contributing holistically to the project success.

  • Andrew Smith

    Labels. Get over it.
    Good Account Directors are good Account Directors regardless of what you want to call them, or hide them. 
    Ever wondered what you’re not being told? Maybe because creatives are too precious to hear what the client actually thinks, and the Account Director applies logical to their irrational complaints.

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